Home.

Well, okay, I’ve been here for almost 2 days now, but I decided that having phone interviews and meetings on my first day back would distract me from any feelings of jet lag combined with mourning.

It worked. But that decision has also kept me from the kitchen. Stay tuned, though. Updates coming soon!

nestMeg’s First Birthday: Celebrate with Chocolate Cake

Wow. I can hardly believe a year has passed since I began this whole food blogging endeavor.

In that time, I have experienced some of the most defining moments of my life: Figuring out, with all the certainty a 22-year-old can possess, what I want to doGraduating from college. Moving to another country. Monumental moments that happened beyond the promising comfort of my kitchen–yet that was the place from which I drew my strength and sought my inspiration.

I started this blog to hold myself accountable in the kitchen. To learn how to be self-sufficient. I also learned, inadvertently, how to take risks. Within the confines of my apartment, I combined rosemary and peanut butter into a pie. (I know, I live on the edge.) But outside, I quit obligations that no longer resonated with me. I pursued passions that did. In lieu of accepting a job straight after graduation, I opted to take one last hiatus.

For some, these decisions are easily made. For me, they require deliberation akin to that of our current Congress. But I want to be the kind of person who trusts her instincts, and so I’ve expanded my risk-taking beyond the kitchen and into the real world. It’s the only way to increase one’s repertoire. And if I burn the hummus? Or make a fool of myself? Well, I can take comfort in knowing that, whatever the outcome, I learned more than I would have sitting on the couch and watching three seasons of Skins. (Not that that behavior isn’t totally acceptable sometimes.)

Then again, this chocolate cake recipe is hardly risky, unless one considers the lengths my siblings and I went to in order to eat this cake outside of permissible hours. It’s not the kind of cake you forget is lying in your kitchen, waiting. It’s the kind of cake that demands attention until the last bite has been consumed. Personally, my preferred method of extra cake attainment was running my finger around the perimeter of the pan, gathering up frosting like a snow plow, then dipping it into the cake crumbs from slices past, before licking my finger clean. Then, I’d smush the unaffected frosting down to cover my misdeed.

As you can probably guess, my stealth was no match for my mother.

And the three-year-old hand you see featured in the first picture above? I’m pretty sure the body attached to it was contemplating a similar covert operation. It runs in the family.

Speaking of family, I want to thank you, my blog family. Without your support, I’d be just another not-so-starving writer. I hope you’ll stick with me in year 2 — won’t you?

Simple Chocolate Sheet Cake:
Makes one 9 x 13 cake
3 1-ounce unsweetened chocolate baking squares (or 9 tablespoons cocoa and 3 tablespoons butter)
1/3 cup water (omit water if using cocoa and butter instead of baking squares)
3/4 cup butter, room temperature
2 1/4 cups firmly packed brown sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 1/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup water

1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place baking squares and 1/3 cup water into a microwave-safe bowl. (If using cocoa, skip to step 2.) Microwave in 30 second intervals, stirring after each interval, until the chocolate has melted fully. Set aside to let cool.
2) Cream butter in a bowl (including the 3 tablespoons for the cocoa, if you’re not using baking squares), then add brown sugar. Stir until well-incorporated, then add eggs one at a time. Stir in vanilla.
3) Once the melted chocolate has cooled, stir into the butter and sugar mixture. If using cocoa instead, combine cocoa.
4) Stir in flour and baking soda, alternating with the 1 cup of water. Pour batter into a 9 x 13 baking pan. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
5) Once the cake has cooled, frost with your favorite buttercream recipe. I used this buttercream frosting recipe, but omitted the mint and added a few tablespoons of cocoa.

Buttermilk Fried Chicken

It all started when my cousin here made a fairly innocuous request: to cook a meal that represents North Carolina.

Well, as we’ve previously established, I’m just a wannabe Southerner. I also have never attempted to make barbecue in either the eastern (vinegar-based) or western (tomato-based) North Carolinian fashion, which is the first meal option that sprung to mind. In the interest of leaving North Carolina barbecue to the professionals and maintaining my own sanity, I decided to broaden the scope of her request with a “Southern” meal. I also wanted to avoid the inevitable arguments that arise when you get too specific in identifying the origins of different foods. “Southern” seems like a safer distinction than “North Carolinian.”

When I found myself standing in a kitchen on Duke’s campus a few months ago, watching my food writing professor navigating her tongs over spattering oil and flour-drenched drumsticks, I established a genuine appreciation for an art form I originally associated with heat lamps and mushy biscuits. (Thanks, Bojangle’s.) Cooking fried chicken isn’t difficult, but there’s definitely a method to it.

For most of my childhood, I firmly believed that the crispy exterior of fried chicken was caused by something akin to corn flakes constituting the breading. We can attribute that belief to my mom’s attempts to make healthier fried chicken, which did, in fact, involve corn flakes and eschewed the stove in favor of the oven. The only fried food our kitchen ever saw was funnel cake. Once. We left it to the NC State Fair professionals after that.

One perfectly normal middle school day, I broke bread (er, fried chicken) with my friend Megan, and everything changed. Straight from her lunch box, the chicken was still miraculously crispy and required no accompaniment–it didn’t even need to be heated up. I think the foundation of our friendship was formed on that chicken. The first time I went to Megan’s house, her mom made me that chicken. I consumed my weight in that chicken. And then we stopped being friends (apparently even the best fried chicken cannot save a friendship, although it can extend one long past its expected expiration date), so my homemade fried chicken experiences waned once again.

When I finally learned how to make fried chicken from my professor, I watched very carefully for any sign of cornflakes (just in case) or other magical methods of crispiness-making. Instead, I saw a paste of buttermilk and flour transformed into a golden coat from which only joy and happiness can be derived. Oh, and chicken.

Last night was the first time I made fried chicken without adult supervision. Our meal also involved buttermilk biscuits, corn on the cob, salad (for good measure) and peach cobbler for dessert.

Based on the silent chewing that following the meal’s presentation, I can assume that the South was once again well-received by my German family.

Buttermilk Fried Chicken:
Serves 4 to 6
2 pounds chicken (drumsticks and wings work best)
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon paprika
salt & pepper, to taste
6 cups vegetable or rapeseed oil

1) Fill a large skillet with high sides (preferably cast iron) half full with vegetable oil. Set stove to high heat, but lower if the oil begins to smoke.
2) Fill one shallow bowl with buttermilk and the other with flour, paprika, salt and pepper. Dip chicken pieces in buttermilk, then cover with flour thoroughly (the flour will act like a blanket that seals in moisture). Set aside onto a cookie sheet.
3) Place chicken pieces in skillet until the skillet is full. Brown chicken on both sides, then reduce heat. Cover the skillet and cook chicken on low heat for about 30 minutes. Then, increase heat again and fry until crispy.
4) Place chicken pieces on a plate covered in a paper towel. Keep chicken warm in the oven while frying the rest of the chicken.

Honey Salmon with Noodles

Typical. I leave in three weeks, and now the weather decides to act somewhat summery.

Then again, I leave in three weeks. I have plenty of time to remember what the sun feels like, and perhaps even don a bikini at an outdoor pool. Also on the agenda: more museums, more clubs, a lake visit, and a trip to Salzburg to pretend I’m in The Sound of Music. I’ll even attempt to take pictures of things other than food, but I’m not making any promises. I can only focus on so many interests, and food trumps scenic vistas any time–probably because they possess the power to make me salivate months after being taken. Mountain ranges do not.

This recipe is an Asian-inspired recipe from a cookbook written by an Australian cookbook author and translated into Germany. Oh, globalization. Incidentally, the cookbook is called something completely different in German, but I prefer the title My Spontaneous Kitchen to the original title since mine usually is, and it suits me. (On a purely tangential note, the German title for the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall is Never Have Sex with Your Ex.)

Anyway, I’m basically infatuated with this meal. It’s perfect for summer–refreshing, brimming with fresh herbs and vegetables, and light, so long as you don’t consume as much of it as I did. Also, everything comes together in under 20 minutes. Think of it as ramen for grown-ups. (The ones who don’t want hypertension, at least.)

Honey Salmon with Noodles:
Serves 4
1 package (8 ounces) Chinese noodles
5 sprigs of cilantro, coarsely chopped
3 mint leaves, sliced
5 basil leaves, sliced
2 zucchini, grated
1 tablespoon lime juice
3 tablespoons soy sauce
4 tablespoons honey, divided
4 salmon filets, cut in strips 1/2 inch wide
salt & pepper

1) Set a pot of water to boil for the noodles and preheat a pan on medium heat for the salmon (you could also grill the salmon). In a large bowl, mix cilantro, mint, basil, zucchini, lime juice, soy sauce and 2 tablespoons of honey.
2) Cook noodles for 3 to 5 minutes. Drain and toss with the sauce. Taste noodles, then add more herbs as desired.
3)  Spread the remaining 2 tablespoons of honey on the salmon. Add salt and pepper. Cook salmon on the pan for 2 minutes on each side. Serve over noodles and sprinkle with more cilantro.

Chicken Tacos


I’ve heard rumors that the U.S. is currently experiencing some kind of heatwave. (And, by “rumors,” I mean that I’ve heard more about the sweltering  temperatures on the east coast these past few days than I have about the debt crisis. And Amy Winehouse. Combined.)

Well, here in Germany, we have to make our own heatwave, ’cause the weather certainly isn’t doing much work for us. The past week has been rainy, cloudy, intermittently sunny, then rainy again. Oh, and around 65 degrees. Not that I really mind that last bit. This summer could be my only opportunity to wear tights between May and August. I’m seizing it.

Thus, Germany’s temperamental approach to sunshine necessitates that we eat the heat rather than beat the heat.

Works for me.

Chicken Tacos:
Serves 6
2 pounds boneless chicken thighs
1 large white onion, peeled and quartered
5 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon ground cumin
Salt & pepper, to taste

1) Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and add water to just cover the chicken. Turn heat to high, bring to a boil, and skim any foam that comes to the surface.
2) Partially cover the pan and adjust heat so mixture simmers steadily. Cook until meat is very tender, about 30 minutes. Remove from liquid and let cool.
3) Shred meat with fingers. Pile onto a tortilla and top with your favorite taco fixings. I opted for tomato and mango salsa, cheddar cheese and sour cream.

Banana Pudding

It’s difficult to say exactly when Southern culture wooed its way into my heart and spread, like kudzu, straight into my stubborn Yankee soul. Born in New York and transplanted before I could even start school, I felt like a vagabond. A Girl Without a Region. So, I clung to the only identity I thought I had, knowing that any real Southerner would pronounce me a fraud the moment I opened my mouth and produced any word with a short “o” sound. (“D-aw-g,” “aw-fice,” and “c-aw-fee” were all dead giveaways.)

For much of my adolescence, I fought valiantly against any influences that hailed from below the Mason-Dixon line. In my earliest years in North Carolina, I argued with countless other children that “y’all” was merely a contraction and not, in fact, a real word. I refused to participate in our high school tradition of wearing camouflage and neon orange to football games. For that matter, I refused to acknowledge football, period. I always chose Dunkin’ Donuts over Krispy Kreme during “which is better?” doughnut debates.

Over the years, I made a few concessions. I went to Bojangle’s for lunch, on occasion. I began saying “ma’am” when I got my first job. I learned to slow down. (Or, rather, I tried to learn. I’m not entirely sure I am capable of the task.) Sometimes, I ate Krispy Kreme donuts. And liked it.

As I’m sure you can guess, I learned to love the South through food. Maybe it was the cold, crunchy fried chicken my middle school friend always shared with me at lunch. Maybe it was the smoky dry ribs I devoured in that iconic basement barbecue restaurant, Rendezvous, in Memphis. Or the pimento cheese on soft, pale bread. Or the grits, shiny with bacon grease and sprinkled with grilled shrimp. Or the cornbread, which speaks for itself.

All I know is, one day I was criticizing the number of Confederate flags stuck to pick-up trucks and flying from flagpoles, and the next I was correcting the misinformed people I met in D.C. who still subscribed to antiquated Southern stereotypes. And then, one night, I said “y’all.” And meant it.

I’m not suggesting that I have become a Southerner. I’m not sure it’s an identity you can adopt, particularly when I’m still harboring a decidedly non-Southern accent. Rather, I like to think I’m a hybrid. I can appreciate the best of both worlds, and recognize the worst, too.

One of the best things about the South, by far, is the banana pudding. (Or banana puddin’. Your choice.)

I cannot recall the first time I indulged in what was likely more than one serving of this layered delight, but my most fond memory of banana pudding is on a summer evening in Beaufort, eating banana pudding by the bowlful, often adding a spoonful of hot fudge or two. (We had no concept of restraint that summer.) A close second in the memory department is eating banana pudding in Munich last year, when the Icelandic volcano left me “stranded” in Germany.

My hostess loved it so much, I thought I’d take another stab at the creamy, Southern classic, served up for a European audience. And this time, I made the pudding completely from scratch. And I will also acknowledge Paula Deen for her contribution, as much as it pains me. Her original banana pudding recipe is here.

Banana Pudding:
Serves 8
3/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
3 cups milk
4 egg yolks, slightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
4 medium bananas, sliced
1 (12-ounce box) vanilla wafers
1 cup whipped cream

1) Heat a double boiler (or create your own with a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of water) on the stove. Meanwhile, mix together sugar and cornstarch in a bowl. Add sugar and cornstarch to the pot and slowly stir in milk. Let thicken slightly.
2) Take a few spoonfuls of the pudding and stir into the bowl containing the beaten egg yolks to heat (temper) the eggs so they won’t overcook in the pot. Then add the egg mixture to the pot and stir for another 2 minutes. Pudding should coat the back of the stirring spoon. Remove pudding from heat and let cool.
3) In a baking dish (9×9 works best, but I used a more rectangular baking dish and it was fine), alternate pudding, bananas and wafers, beginning and ending with pudding. Be generous with the banana slices–slices should be touching.
4) Top the pudding with whipped cream. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Do you identify yourself regionally? If so, from what region? Do you think it’s possible to “become” Southern?

The Italy Recovery Period

For every two weeks that a person is in Italy, he or she requires one week of recovery. It’s a little-known fact, but one should not engage in any mentally or physically challenging tasks immediately upon returning to one’s home country, including, but not limited to, food blogging. Following all that R&R, it’s important to slowly transition back into a schedule. After all, I had to fulfill many strenuous duties as a tourist in my two weeks in Italy:

– Checking out some famous buildings, statues and fountains

 

– Swimming in assorted seas and lakes (like Lake Albano, pictured here)

 

– Shuttling the kids around, and sometimes putting my super-sized sunglasses on their itty-bitty faces and deriving far too much amusement from it

 

– Eating food that other people cooked for me
That last one has really done me in. I haven’t cooked in–please withhold your shock–two weeks. My Italy vacation began with the promise of infinite food inspiration and ended with sheer gluttonous laziness. “Why cook when Italians can do it for you?” I have often wondered in a post-pizza-and-gelato daze. There are few moments more joyous than watching your waiter weave his way toward you with a pizza the size of a Monopoly board, contentment washing over your sun-weary skin and carb-starved stomach when you realize that whole pie is for you, solely and exclusively. And you didn’t have to make it.

But, folks, I’m back. And I’ll be cooking again pronto.

Italian Steak Sandwiches

It’s impossible not to be inspired here, really. I could wax poetic about Italy all day, but I think it’s best to write this post channeling the same simplicity that I have noticed in the food here. Fresh and, often, sublime, yes. But also simple.

Since we’re talking inspiration, this picture depicts my view during lunch today (and every day):

Ha! Totally kidding. My back is actually facing the Mediterranean Sea where I sit at our table, so actually my view looks more like this:

Yes, life is good. And so is this sandwich. And its name is derived from the place it was born, and nothing more. I hope I don’t offend any Italians out there with a culturally inaccurate sandwich.

And for those of you who have been to Italy before, I have to ask: Where are the best places to go in Florence and Rome? And by “go,” I mean “eat.” Obviously.

Italian Steak Sandwiches:
Serves 4
2 medium-sized cuts of flank steak
Olive oil
Salt & pepper
2 medium sweet onions, cut in 1/2-inch strips
2 medium red peppers, cut in 1/2-inch strips
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 large loaf of bread (I used ciabatta, but I’ll opt for a less dense bread next time)
1 large mozzarella ball, sliced
A few sprigs of basil
Pesto or your favorite sandwich spread

1) Season steak on both sides with salt and pepper while heating a large pan with 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. When the pan is hot, add steak. Cook for about 4 minutes on each side. Set steak aside on a cutting board.
2) Add another tablespoon of olive oil to the pan, then add onions and peppers. Cook for 2 minutes, then add balsamic vinegar. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
3) Cut steak into strips. Slice bread into four sections, then cut each section in half again to make the sandwich. Add steak strips to the base of each sandwich, then layer with onion and pepper mixture, mozzarella, and basil. Spread pesto or other sandwich spread on the top half of the sandwich. Serve warm (I heated ours up on a pan with another pan on top, panini-style) or cold.

Grilled Chicken & Pesto Pasta

Happy Father’s Day! Sadly, mine is across the ocean from me, so I cannot cook for him today, but at least I can promise to make this recipe, or any other, for him when I return. (Dad, this blog post serves as a coupon, of sorts. Redeemable for whenever I’ve recovered from jet lag and financial destitution caused by the unforgiving euro.) I love you, daddy! Thanks for passing on to me your height, sardonicism, and love of cats. I’ve forgiven you for not endowing me with your math skills, don’t worry.

Holiday aside, I was recently accused of not posting enough chicken recipes. I’ve already shared a few of my thoughts on chicken back when I roasted a chicken for the first time, but I do not especially enjoy cooking meat in general, and avoiding meat purchases at the grocery store saves me a decent amount of money. When I do buy meat, I’m pretty particular about where it comes from. A local producer is preferable, but, at the very least, I always buy organic meat, for a variety of environmental and ethical reasons. Still, I’m not as particular as these people:

Nope. I haven’t reached that point… yet.

Since I’m always open to recipe requests, I searched for a simple, summery recipe where I could satisfy my friend Kasey’s desire for more chicken and my desire to become more comfortable in front of the grill. Hopefully I satisfied the former, although my cousin grilled while I prepared the other ingredients, so my grilling experience has not developed further. If one person’s on the grill and the other at the stove, you can knock out this dish in under 30 minutes.

Pasta has been on my mind a lot recently because tomorrow I head to Italy for two weeks. I’ve never been before, and I’ll be staying with my family on an agriturismo in Tuscany. My dreams are saturated with images of fresh, plump mozzarella, vibrant tomatoes and warm bread, all drizzled with silken olive oil, frolicking through lush Italian fields and into my belly. At the very least, I’ll write a mental draft of the version of Eat, Pray, Love that I’d actually want to read, entitled Eat, Eat, Eat. (Interspersed with some sleeping, sunning, and a short walk or two, but that title is significantly less marketable.)

Grilled Chicken & Pesto Pasta:
Serves 4
4 small, boneless, skinless chicken breasts
olive oil
salt & pepper, to taste
10 ounces of pasta (noodles are fine, but bowties would be wonderful, too!)
3 tablespoons reserved pasta water, divided
1/4 cup sundried tomatoes
1/2 tablespoon butter
2 garlic cloves, minced
3/4 cup milk, divided
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons pesto (I’m going to try this recipe with homemade walnut pesto soon)
6 tablespoons cream
1 cup Parmesan cheese, divided
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped

1) Prepare grill to medium-high heat. Marinate chicken with olive oil, salt and pepper. (I let my chicken marinate for a few hours ahead of time, but right before should be fine, too.) Grill chicken for about 10 minutes, 5 per side, until insides are no longer pink. Set chicken aside to cool, then slice into generous chunks.
2) Cook pasta according to package directions and drain, reserving 3 tablespoons or so of pasta water. Set pasta aside to cool. Add 1 tablespoon of pasta water to a bowl with the sundried tomatoes to restore some of their moisture.
3) Whisk together 1/4 cup of milk and flour in a bowl and set aside. Heat butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Add garlic to pan and cook for 1 minute, then add then milk and flour mixture, stirring constantly. Mixture should thicken almost immediately. Stir in pesto and remaining 1/2 cup milk and all the cream. Cook until sauce thickens (about 5 minutes). Add remaining 2 tablespoons of pasta water to the sauce and 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese.
4) Pour sauce on top of pasta, along with the chicken. Drain any remaining pasta water from the sundried tomatoes, then add to the pasta. Toss the pasta to coat thoroughly, then garnish with basil and remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese.

Cooking Again — Soon

You know what I’d really love to do? Fill mason jars with the wonderful, restorative, inspiring atmosphere that is surrounding me at the moment and send them to everyone back home.

In lieu of that, a brief summary of my past week: Neuschwanstein Castle, lentil “burgers” (now three-year-old approved), a UNC friend’s visit, biergartens, more biergartens, bike rides through German countryside, Dachau, and late nights with new friends. Oh, and lots and lots of walking.

What I have not done nearly enough of is cooking. Eating, yes. Cooking, no. I could pretend it’s because I’m busy, but actually, it’s because I’m enjoying being fed. My cousin is an excellent cook who has provided me with all kinds of new recipes that you’ll see here shortly.

But, on Thursday, I’ll be the one who’s cooking. (And then I need to cook a whole lot more for the remainder of the summer.) What should I make?